Existing technology unlocks profit

Across the country farmers are putting in long hours as they find themselves in the middle of fall harvest. For many, this is the most exciting time of the year. Months of hard work and decision-making are finally coming to fruition. It’s the report card of the growing season and it’s the first accurate glimpse at how the balance sheet may look at the end of the year.

As a producer, the yield results coming in allow you to begin evaluating your management decisions. But exactly how are your evaluations being made? Gone are the days of seeing a disappointing yield result, scratching your head as to what when wrong and hoping next year is better. More and more producers are beginning to look for answers as to why decisions didn’t produce the results they expected.

Today’s economic environment is challenging and everyone is telling you to trim expenses. That sounds easy, but what happens when you’ve run out of cost-cutting measures and it’s still not enough? Maybe the key to unlocking more profit potential lies in your evaluation process of what worked and what didn’t. If you are just analyzing how a field looks from the road, or just adding up scale tickets from the elevator, you may not be seeing the data hidden in your fields.

It’s not in plain sight, but information that has a real impact on your bottom line is out there just waiting to be discovered. It’s not a game of hide and seek, but rather leveraging technology from one of the most sophisticated pieces of equipment on your farmyour combine.

What’s available

Combine technology has advanced at a breakneck pace and the amount of data now generated during harvest is staggering. Yield maps, moisture maps, guidance maps, speed maps, loss maps, elevation maps and variety maps all have the potential to reveal insights about your farming practices never before considered. Are you really using all the data your combine generates the way you should?

For early technology adopters the answer is yes. Erik Oberbroeckling of Garnavillo, Iowa, has been collecting yield data for nearly 20 years. For Oberbroeckling Family Farms, combine data is integrated into every decision made, from where to soil sample to what seed to plant. “Each year we conduct a large-scale test plot of new varieties by splitting the planter in half. The combine documents those yield results precisely, and those comparisons lead to better hybrid selections,” Oberbroeckling said. Yield maps also help evaluate other trials on their farm like experimenting with a new starter fertilizer or changing their corn planting populations.

Merging multiple years of yield data into one master composite map helps keeps their decision-making on track. “We can look back historically and see when the weather wasn’t ideal, and we determine if those results should be excluded because they are not typical. It helps us make decisions not based on anomalies but on averages,” said Oberbroeckling. “We aren’t guessing or using someone else’s results. We make our own spreadsheets from our own data that shows us positive or negative changes.

Other producers have been more hesitant to jump on the technology bandwagon, but the interest level in utilizing harvest data has never been higher. This year Stefan Farms of Minneola, Kansas, hired some wheat acres harvested by custom cutters that provided yield maps. This was the first time Garrett Stefan had seen his fields in such detail, and it provided a few surprises.

“The maps showed a variability that I couldn’t see from the road. The fields appeared nice and even, but the yield maps told a different story.” Moisture maps also revealed some wet grain in a few areas that may have caused long-term storage issues. “Accurately knowing the grain moisture would give me more confidence to storing my grain on-farm without the worry of spoiling. Seeing those maps could push me to change the way I am marketing my grain,” Stefan said.

New data points

While yield and moisture data maps are probably the most common information being used, producers are finding innovative ways to incorporate other data points recorded by the combine. Documented harvesting speeds can influence tillage choices for next year’s crop. Areas where the combine had to decrease speed often indicate a higher level of residue left behind. Speed maps can be used to create tillage recommendations, and some of the latest tillage tools can automatically increase their aggressiveness in those areas to make sure residue is adequately sized and buried.

Elevation maps can help producers better visualize how water drains from their fields. Low-lying spots may need better drainage and comparing elevation and yield maps can help determine where tile lines or terraces would be most beneficial. Grain loss maps can help a combine operator better anticipate harvesting speeds and limit loss from the machine. More kernels in the tank means higher profits, but less volunteer crop growth can also help save money on next year’s chemical application plan.

So why aren’t producers implementing more of this harvesting data into their operations? Two main reasons are commonly cited: cost and complexity. Obviously not every producer can justify a new combine purchase. The technology can also be complicated to use and some producers are skeptical of the data’s accuracy. Equipment manufacturers are recognizing these concerns. Resources are pouring into developing retrofit kits for older machines and reducing complexity through universal integration and improving data accuracy.

Many of today’s late-model combines can be retrofitted with moisture sensors, yield monitors and GPS equipment capable of documenting the same information as a brand new machine. A range of options offered by short-line companies and original equipment manufacturers ensures producers can find the technology they need at an affordable price. Even the installation process has been streamlined. Thanks to an agricultural standard for electronic compatibility, different brands can now be integrated together with minimal effort. These changes make it easier than ever to join the technology revolution, regardless of an operation’s size or technical expertise.

More on the horizon

The next big evolution in combine technology is automated functions, and manufactures have introduced new capabilities that are revolutionizing how we harvest. Cameras inside the combine use advanced photo recognition to evaluate all aspects of the machine’s performance. Sophisticated software continually monitors changes and then makes automatic adjustments. The result? There is maximized productivity and grain quality all without input from the operator. Ultrasonic sensors help the computers visualize the machine’s capacity, and weigh cells create 3-D models of grain flow, continuously calibrating yield monitors. Even some of these advanced technologies can be retrofit onto late-model machines, and it’s all in an effort to minimize expenses, maximize efficiency and provide the most accurate data possible.

Producers can now monitor almost any aspect of harvest in real-time from anywhere, even adjusting combine settings remotely. It’s all made possible by data streamed from the machine to cloud-based data servers and sent to your smartphone. Of course all of this technology has to mean something. From the most basic data collection to the most sophisticated automation, it all has to serve the purpose of providing value to your operation.

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“It can’t be just cool maps that you take into the coffee shop to show everyone,” Garrett Stefan said. “Understanding the results of your decisions can be hard to quantify, but you can see how technology can be a game changer in your decision-making process.”

With that in mind, here are four key takeaways to consider how you might change the way you currently use combine technology in your operation:

1. Have realistic expectations. Adopting new technology or generating mountains of data won’t double your profits overnight. Instead, focus on making small data-driven changes you can accurately track. Over time, these insights will lead to more meaningful results.

2. Accuracy matters. All the data in the world can’t help you if it’s not accurate. Taking the time to fine tune data collection may seem frustrating, but comparing skewed information sabotages your efforts. Consider selecting technologies that self-calibrate or can easily be post-calibrated after harvest to improve accuracy.

3. Don’t be intimidated. You invested in the technology and have a flash drive full of maps. Now what? Knowing how to translate data into an action plan can seem daunting, but don’t be afraid to ask for help from an agronomic advisor or producer. It’s often best to start simple, and your confidence will grow over time with experience.

4. It’s never too late to start. If you feel late in joining the technology revolution, don’t. Data collection development had its share of problems early on, so fortunately you avoided those frustrations. If data-driven decisions could improve your operation, the technology has never been more affordable or easy to use. The sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll see results.

Brian Jones can be reached at [email protected].